Young Thongor (4 page)

It would stand for the rest of time, that cairn, to mark the place where Thumithar of the Valklings had fallen. Or until the mighty continent itself, riven asunder with earthquake, was drowned beneath the cold waves of the sea.

He sang the warrior’s song over them, his clear young voice sharp and strong and strange to hear in that deathly silence.

* * * *

The black sky lit with cold glory as the great golden Moon of old Lemuria rose up over the edges of the world to flood the bleak land of Valkarth with her light. In the cold flame of the moonlight, he saw that the cairn was high and strong. The white bears would not claw it asunder, nor the grey wolves, to feast on what lay beneath.

At the thought, his jaws tightened and his lips clamped together. For the white bear of the Northlands was the totem beast of the enemy clan who had worked this day’s red ruin, even as the black hawk of the skies was his own tribal totem.

He hated the mighty
ulth
, the white bear of the snow countries, and had often hunted him down the bleak hills of this wintry land. And now he had another reason for that hatred.

The cairn was done; and he was finished here.

But there was one last task the dead had set upon him.

And its name was Vengeance.

3

Horror on the Heights

He gathered up his gear and was ready to depart. From the dead, he took what he needed, nor did it bother him to plunder them. They were the men of his race, and the blood that lay strewn upon the snows about them, that same blood ran hot and fierce in his own veins. They would not begrudge him what he needed of them. Nor would they need it any longer.

From one he took the black leather trappings that were warriors’ harness, the leather yoke studded with discs of brass that fitted about the throat to protect the shoulders, the affair of buckled straps and the great brass ring that shielded the midsection from the flat of a blade, the iron-studded girdle worn low about the hips, the heavy boots, the broad-bladed dagger and the twin leather bottles, one filled with water and one with wine. His sword he slid into its worn old scabbard, which he clipped to a baldric and slung it across his chest so that the scabbard hung high between his shoulders.

He was not truly of age to don warriors’ harness, for he had not yet undergone initiation into the rights of manhood by the old shaman of his nation. Nor would he now, for the garrulous old tosspot lay dead across the vale, having slain a dozen Snow Bear warriors with a two-handed axe before they had cut him down. Had not this day befallen, Thongor would with summer have gone up into the high mountains, there to dwell alone amid the heights, drinking the water of melted snow and eating only what he could slay with his bare hands; there would he have dwelt for forty days until the vision of his totem came to him and he learned his secret name.

Now that would never be. But manhood was upon him without the old rites.

Vengeance is for men. It is not a task for boys.

* * * *

Half the night was worn away. He crossed the valley and climbed the hills, ignoring the pain in his injured foot. Strong red wine had warmed his numb flesh and it drove new strength and vigor through his tired frame. The cold, thin air of the heights cleared his throbbing head and the exertion of the ascent made the blood tingle in his veins.

There would be time enough to rest, later, when the deed was done.

If he lived…

The Moon was high in the heavens now; the night sky was black as death and the stars blazed like diamonds strewn on dark velvet. He thought of nothing as he climbed, neither of the dead he had left behind him in the valley, nor of those he went to kill, but merely of setting his foot upon first one rock and then upon a higher one until at last he came to the crest and the wide world fell away beneath him to every side and the stars seemed very near.

Here a saddle-shaped depression sloped between twin hill-crests, thick with virgin snow. It had fallen here, perhaps, when the world was young and fresh and the Gods still went among men to teach them the nine crafts and the seven arts.

He began to wade through the snow between the twin peaks. With each step he stirred snows that had lain for a thousand years, and the crystals swirled up before him like ancient ghosts awakened by the step of a rash intruder into places better left undisturbed.

His nape-hairs prickled and the flesh of his forearms crept. He had a sense that something was aware of his coming, that something—
roused
.

The cold breath of fear blew along his nerves, and it was colder than any snow. One hand went to his breast where a fetish of white stone lay over his heart, suspended about his neck on a thong. He muttered aloud the name of Gorm, his god.

And terror woke, roaring!

Was it a sudden gust of wind which raised the snow before him in a whirling cloud—a cloud that shaped itself into a mighty, towering form—a phantom-thing of numb snow that reared up before him on legs like tree-trunks, hunched shoulders massive and monstrous, huge paws raised to crush and tear, dripping jaws agape, red eyes of madness glaring into his?

He fell into a fighting stance and the great blade was alive and singing in his hand, starlight glittering on the blue steel, acid-etched sigils blazing with eerie fires.

The thing came lumbering towards him. And he knew no steel could slay it, for it did not really live.

4

Vengeance in the Night

The gigantic, white, hulking monster was almost upon the boy now. He knew it for an
ulth
, a snow bear, but twice the girth and height of any
ulth
ever seen by mortal eyes before.

He knew also that it was a ghost-thing, that demon of the snows. For there poured from it a freezing cold, inhuman and magical. The sheen of perspiration on his bronze limbs froze like a thin sheath of glass upon his body. The icy breath of those fanged jaws panted in his face and he felt it go dead and numb as if he wore a mask of snow.

A red haze thickened before his eyes, blinding him. Each breath he drew was like fire stabbing in his lungs, cold fire, black yet burning. He fought against the cold that coiled about him, swung Sarkozan high, glittering against the stars, and hewed and cut at the ghost-bear. But from each stroke he took hurt, for a wave of stunning cold went through him as the steel blade touched the lumbering monster of snow.

He fought on, knowing death was near; flesh could not long endure such cold. His heart was a frozen thing in his breast; his very blood congealed in his veins; he could no longer breathe, for to draw in each breath was as painful as a blade of ice driven deep into his lungs. But he fought on, and would fight until he fell.

A piercing cry cut through him from above.

Through snow-thick lashes he peered up to see a weird and fantastic shape, black and be-winged, beating against the stars.

He could not see it clearly—a moving blackness, blotting out the starlight—its eyes like golden fire, brighter than any star, and moonlight glittering on beak and outstretched claws.

It fell like a thunderbolt from above, swept by him like a whirlwind, and swung down upon the white bear-thing with a scream of fury.

The mountains shook as the two came together, and the stars were blotted out.

Ragged black wings beat with cyclone force. Shaggy white jaws roared and crunched. Scythe-sharp black claws caught at the white breast and tore it asunder. The white thing moaned, and toppled, and came apart in chunks of broken snow.

The black shape whirled about and glared at the boy for the space of a single heartbeat.

And black eyes stared deep into his golden ones.

Then the black wings spread and caught the wind and it was gone. Thongor lay gasping in the snow, the sword fallen from his nerveless hand.

Agony lanced through him as circulation returned to his half-frozen body. Hot blood went pumping through numb flesh; he shook his head dully, trying to waken his sluggish, frozen brain.

He had attained manhood, after all.

He had gone up on the heights alone, and there the vision had come to him, and he had seen his totem-beast, and learned his True Name.

And he was blest above all the warriors of his tribe since time began: for the beast of his vision was the Black Hawk of Valkarth itself, the symbol of his race. And he knew then that his destiny would be stranger and more wondrous and more terrible than that of other men.

And he had seen a prophecy, too.

He had seen the Black Hawk fight and slay the Snow Bear. The ghost-beasts had fought there on the windy heights near to the blazing stars, and from that fight the Black Hawk had borne away the victory.

He drank down cold wine and rested for a time.

Then he went on, to make the prophecy come true.

* * * *

It was the month of Garang in late spring, and the thaws had begun. The great snow that lay thick upon the heights and that cumbered the steep slope of the cliffs was rotten and lay loose, water trickling here and there. When he crossed over to the other side of the ridge he could look down on the valley where the tents of the Snow Bear tribe stood out black against the snow, which reddened, now, to the first shafts of dawn.

They were weary after the long battle, the Snow Bear warriors—those of them that had survived. They had killed and killed and come away with the Black Hawk treasure of mammoth-ivory and red gold and with those of the Black Hawk women and girl-children who had not been fortunate enough to die beside their men.

They had feasted long, drunk deep, and caroused lustily and late, the victorious Snow Bear warriors. And now they slept heavily, gorged on meat and blood and wine and womanflesh.

From that sleep they would not awaken.

For a long moment the boy stood, arms folded against his breast, looking down on the camp.

His face was grim and expressionless, like a mask cast in hard bronze. He was a boy in years, but the iron of manhood had entered his soul. He knew what he must do; the spirits of the dead called to him in the windy silence, and he hearkened, and bent to the task.

With the great sword he began to cut the snow away.

It was not hard to do; the growing warmth of a Northlands spring had done half the job for him. The broken masses of snow began to roll down the steep, high slopes; as they came whirling down, they broke more snow loose, and each mass became a greater mass, until at last a mountain of heavy snow poured like a ponderous white river down the cliffs to collide in thunder on the floor of the valley below.

They had put up their tents close under those cliffs, the Snow Bear warriors, to block away the wind. Now it was snow that came down upon them, not wind, and by the time the avalanche came thundering down upon the tents it weighed many tons.

It crushed them into the earth, smothered them and their treasure and the ruined, broken, empty-eyed women they had taken captive; and in that thundering white fury not one lived.

The tribes of Valkarth have a simple faith.

Only those brave warriors who face the foe, and fight, and fall in battle, only their bold spirits are borne by the War Maids to the Hall of Heroes, to feast eternity away before the throne of Father Gorm.

And what of they that die by accident in gross and drunken slumber? The shamans shrug and do not say. But they do not die the death of men, the death of warriors; the Hall of Heroes does not open to such as they. Their miserable souls slink cringing through the grey mists and cold shadows of the Underworld forever.

The vengeance of Thongor was completed.

5

Red Dawn

Morning lit the east and the stars fled, one by one, before the red shafts of dawn.

When Thongor had made certain that not a single foe had survived the avalanche, he turned away and set his face to the sun.

The task was accomplished and he had lived.

Where, now, would he go? To a valley of corpses and an empty hut, whose walls would ring no more to his father’s joyous laughter and his mother’s quiet, crooning songs?

Not there; he could not go back.

But where, then? No other tribe would take him in, for life in the Northlands was a grim, bleak struggle for existence, and every mouth that was fed meant that another must go hungry.

His people were extinct; there was nowhere for him to go.

And then it was that a verse from the old warriors’ song he had sung over his father’s grave for a dirge returned to him. And he thought of the Southlands, of the Dakshina, the lush jungle-countries that lay beside the warm waters of the Gulf, beyond the Mountains of Mommur to the south.

There, bright young cities glittered in the bold sun, with green gardens, and laughing girls. There, fiery kings and princes contended in mighty wars, and kingdoms lay ripe and ready for the taking. He thought of gold and gems, of fruit warm from the sun, of whirling battles on the green plains, of dark-eyed, barbaric women…

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